Resources for Human Development builds a culture of empowerment Featured

8:01pm EDT March 31, 2011
Bob Fishman Bob Fishman

A lot of CEOs try to keep two feet planted on the ground. Bob Fishman tries to keep about 240.

It’s part of his philosophy on organizational management. The founder and CEO of Resources for Human Development believes large organizations are at their best when the people in the field, at the customer interface point, are enabled to spend money and make decisions.

Armed with that philosophy, Fishman has dozens of representatives pounding the pavement in 14 states, gathering information that will help Fishman’s organization better serve its customers.

Resources for Human Development is a nonprofit entity that provides services to people with developmental disabilities, substance addictions and mental illness. The nonprofit, which employs 4,500, also operates various for-profit business ventures in the human services field.

With operations in multiple states, a large work force, governmental partnerships and a large range of services offered, the challenges facing Fishman are far closer to those of a Fortune 500 CEO than the director of a neighborhood social services program, which is why he makes delegation of power a guiding principle.

“The biggest challenge is the continually maintaining of constant diversification of the corporation, while holding to central values of interpersonal behavior in the managers and the supervisory staff,” Fishman says. “The values of the organization being the central part, while focusing on and achieving continued diversification in terms of the markets we reach, the services we deliver and the opening of new service areas.

“The diversification is achieved by having over 120 people at any one point in time out there looking to satisfy the customer base. The same thing is true for nonprofits and for profits — there is a customer base, and for us, they are all state and local governments. So you need many people out there constantly satisfying the customer, the governmental people and their various bureaucracies, and looking for new things we can do for them.”

It’s why Fishman needs a ground-level view on the needs that exist in each of his markets and why he entrusts his people in each market to keep corporate leadership informed.

Trust your people

To build a decentralized organization, you need people to whom you can delegate power and responsibility. You also need to develop a willingness to hand over that responsibility to the people you have deemed worthy and capable.

In other words, you have to be willing to trust people.

Leaders sometimes equate trust with blind loyalty and gullibility. Allowing yourself to become too trusting is supposed to be bad business. You’re supposed to be a chronic skeptic and force others to earn your trust.

Fishman sees it a little differently. To him, there is a not-so-fine line between trust and gullibility. As a leader, you owe it to your people to trust them until you have a reason not to.

“You start out with an assumption that most people are good and can be trusted,” Fishman says. “Very few people that we hire, less than 1 percent, will actually abuse the trust. It happens, but it is such a small percentage that you can start to set up a very different system of empowerment of people to make decisions to run local budgets, to hire people locally, purchase locally.”

It doesn’t mean that you give your people carte blanche to do whatever they want with no regard for consistency or standards. But it does mean that you need to properly train your people, educate them in your standards and culture, and give them the freedom to prove that they can live up to those standards.

“For example, we have $14 million in contracts being managed by our head of operations in New Orleans,” Fishman says. “So she and a series of people are continually reviewing how we’re doing in terms of budgets being negotiated. Is it working out, do we have to look at anything being renegotiated?

“She has local people assisting her, the financial oversight people. Then we have a financial and programmatic oversight in the corporate office here in Philadelphia. There are different levels of oversight, but she is the one who makes the decisions with her staff in New Orleans.”

To drive decision-making power downward while still promoting uniform standards across all of your departments and geographies, you need to be able to set the example from your perch. Fishman consistently models the behavior he wants his leadership in all of his organization’s markets to emulate.

Fishman has branded Resources for Human Development as a “common good corporation.” Anyone who works for Fishman must embrace the concept of working for the greater good. You might be in business for personal gain, but in order to run a completely healthy company, you and your team have to work toward something larger than personal goals.

“We have a bill of rights and responsibilities,” Fishman says. “We have values that need to be valued and learned by all employees, in terms of knowing the budgets of all the units, all the salaries being open, all data being open. I have a management team of 10 people around me, and sometimes, occasionally, we have made an adjustment to the management team’s salary. But we also work in a head office with 290 people, and our pattern is we don’t take bonuses unless everyone gets the same bonus. If my secretary can’t get the bonus, I can’t get the bonus. That is what is called leveling economically.

“What I’m touching on is both in terms of behavior and monetary rewards, we’re following as much as we can, we know what we’re doing and it’s very successful. While other corporations say, ‘How do we survive?’ we’re saying, ‘Step back and look at your culture, look at who is making the decisions, who is being empowered for success.’ Do you basically trust, or do you basically distrust?”

Make your decision

Because of the philosophical differences, it’s difficult to convert from a centralized to a decentralized organizational structure. If you’ve made up your mind to delegate decisions downward, you have to write it onto your company’s DNA. It’s something that everyone has to believe. You have to produce rules by which everyone in the company can play.

Fishman says you need to answer two overarching questions: First, what are your personal values and attitudes about people? And second, are you willing to admit that you can’t have all the answers needed to run a successful enterprise?

“The first thing is you have to face a number of value questions,” he says. “The central one is, do they believe that people are basically trustworthy? If you can’t say that, you can’t do what we’ve done. Not that everyone is totally trustworthy, but basically trustworthy, so that most people will be able to operate within a financial and ethical system.”

You need to remember that that people in the field sometimes need the least watching. Often, if dishonesty or a failure to meet standards becomes evident, the scene of the cultural crime could be right under your nose.

“Most corporations are undermined not by people in the field, but by people in the central office,” Fishman says. “The biggest theft in terms of theft or destruction of reputation has been proven to exist with the people who make the rules and represent the corporation at the center. It was true with Enron and it is true of every other corporation. You reverse that and say, ‘Let’s set up standards for how to use money and decentralize within budgets and agreements;’ you start out assuming that you have good people and they want to do a decent job.”

Your willingness to let others answer the big questions is a lesson you need to learn in two parts. First, can you let someone else be the authority on a matter? And second, can you accept that your team might find multiple ways to arrive at a satisfactory answer to a question or problem?

“Can you accept the idea as an administrator that you don’t have to know everything?” Fishman says. “People are not founders of organizations, because they know the answers to the future. They’re not gods or goddesses. People tend to look toward the center of the organization for the answers to complex questions that can only be worked out by many people in a complex system. There needs to be somebody at whom the buck stops, but to be in that role is different than saying you know all the answers.

“Within that is another assumption that you can arrive at many possible answers, that they don’t have to be arrived at by someone in charge of the services in the corporate office. That allows you, as the corporate head, to say, ‘You decide how to spend the money within the budget, and within the local legislation and agreements that you understand the best.’”

Hire for your culture

How do you hire for a decentralized culture? Fishman says it can be frustrating. You can go through rounds of interviews, review references and resumes, and ultimately, your research will lead you to the right hire the vast majority of the time. But you can’t know for sure until you’ve seen a person at work.

“You can’t know who you’re hiring in advance,” Fishman says. “You can tell people what their job is, what your culture is, what they’re going to be trusted with, and how we expect them to behave and not to behave with money, power and status.”

Though you might want to allow decision-making power to trickle down, you have to give new hires a well-defined set of guidelines and values that will govern them from the first day on the job. If you put those standards in place from the beginning, you stand a much better chance of developing trustworthy people who make decisions that are in the best interest of your company and customers.

“For example, in our system, we decided that no one employed in our corporation can have a private office,” Fishman says. “We might have someone who figures they are now the head of a big division, so I’d like a private space of my own. So we tell them all the things we do and don’t want to see, and correct them as rapidly as we hear about it.”

Ultimately, if you’ve involved enough people in the hiring process, you can usually gain the perspective necessary to make the right hire with the raw materials needed to become the type of employee you can trust with the decisions that will impact your company’s future.

“We make a group decision,” Fishman says. “That person needs to be hired by a group of people, and the people they’re going to supervise. We do appoint people, but often they’re hired from a group interview setting. There needs to be a group buy-in on the process that leads to the decision.”

How to reach: Resources for Human Development, (215) 951-0300 or

Bob Fishman, CEO, Resources for Human Development

Born: Brooklyn, New York

Education: Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and psychology, Brooklyn College; master’s degree in clinical social work, Columbia University

First job: As a kid during (World War II), I’d go around to houses in Brooklyn to buy the fat renderings collected in kitchens. I’d pay a few cents for a can of fat, then take it to the butcher’s store, where they collected it to use in an armament function of some kind. I was a retail buyer and wholesale seller of fat renderings as a kid.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

People are basically good, but people have separated that from an economic model. My business lesson is that is can be combined with a viable business model and flourish.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

One of the hardest things for me is to find out something I don’t have to know. It’s a hard skill, that you don’t have to know and you don’t have to have answers. You have answers for yourself personally, but others have different answers. You have to know what you don’t know.

What is your definition of success?

In a leader of any corporate entity, there is the economic answer that you need to bring in more money than you expend. That is the countable part of success. But the other part for me has been to develop and operate an organization that builds on the strengths of human beings and adds to a culture’s health, rather than taking out of it. I feel I’ve been able to do that within the model I have been able to develop. It’s that duality that allows me to consider my life’s work a success.